‘Never work with children’ is the advice routinely passed on to actors, but it seems that many designers are clamouring to do just that.
In her new book Designing for Children, Catherine Fishel asks what it is that makes a kid want to wear a specific pair of trainers or eat a certain breakfast cereal. Unlocking the answers to such questions brings serious rewards: the UK toy industry is worth £1.5bn, and a 33 per cent increase in expenditure on toys and sports goods is expected in the next five years, while spending on children’s clothing is set for a 24 per cent increase by 2005.
The way to a parent’s wallet is through their child’s heart, and harnessing the familiar whine ‘Mum can I have?’, otherwise known as pester power, is increasingly important. An estimated two thirds of pestering results in a purchase, and social change has ensured parents are spending more than ever before. The growing tendency towards having fewer children later in life alongside the soaring divorce rates has lead to a cash-rich, time-poor society where more guilt translates as increased spending.
Although behavioural science studies have repeatedly shown that peer pressure remains the single most important influence on children, companies are forever chasing new ways to reach this lucrative market. Designing for children is uniquely challenging and enormously rewarding, but viewing the world through a child’s eyes is a difficult task.
Perhaps the key to good design for children lies in a more tangential response to their needs. Oreka Kids – with the help of nine contemporary designers – who launched the Biscuit range of children’s furniture a year ago is currently expanding the collection with a new bed, wardrobe and nappy changing unit. ‘Most of it is twee, clichÃ©d miniature versions of adult stuff. At the mass-market end, it is cheap and colourful with the same aesthetic as toy design,’ explains Biscuit’s co-director Michael Marriott. ‘But when a child opens a present, they tend to prefer playing with the box than its contents – we wanted to design the box, not the toy.’
The designers aimed to create more abstract, less prescriptive objects, with their own aesthetic language. As well as providing a playground for the child’s mind, each object should also sit happily in a room occupied by furniture that is more adult. As well as contributing to the Oreka Kids range, Alex Macdonald has launched his own chair, initially designed for his young daughter. While he couldn’t consult her about the design, Macdonald’s brief was clear: a non-obtrusive, durable piece of furniture that would not patronise the child. ‘It is not really a mini version of an adult’s chair, because it would look quite odd scaled up,’ he maintains, but concedes ‘you still need to have an eye for the purchaser.’
Designers are forced, to a certain extent, to work indirectly, a tricky situation that involves simultaneously reassuring the parent while connecting with the end user. Appealing directly to the child is a relatively new phenomenon that requires a proper understanding of children’s different developmental stages and personal needs. While children under six are responsive to bold, primary colours, gender differentiation emerges at around three years old. Little girls favour pink, but they are happy to buy into ‘masculine’ design, whereas boys are less flexible.
Children go through huge intellectual transitions in relatively short periods of time, and there is a far wider gap between a six-year-old and a 12-year-old than between a 12-year-old and an adult. The golden rule is ‘do not patronise’. Cute is never good – it only appeals to parents; to children it translates simply as babyish. Children of all ages aspire to be older than their years, and successful design will take this phenomenon, known as ‘age compression’, into account: thus a magazine appealing to 13-year-old girls is called Just Seventeen, while those behind the recently launched Cosmo Girl hope for similar success.
Professor Brian Young, who lectures on child psychology, consumer psychology and marketing at Exeter University, believes children’s awareness of brands peaks at around seven or eight. ‘After that they gain an understanding of the true purpose of advertising and appreciate there may be another, subtler message behind the overt message being communicated – that’s when cynicism kicks in,’ he says. ‘This suggests it is possible to market children aggressively until they reach nine years old, and then you lose them.’ Since the recently identified ‘tweenage’ market of nineto 13-year-olds was valued at £21bn in 2000 for the US alone, being able to reach this age group is critical.
For tweens, issues such as credibility and humour transcend the visible hard sell. As such, many companies are now devoted to tapping the sub-culture of children. According to Young, ‘It’s more market intelligence than market research – they are desperate to gain vital information on what their client really, really wants.’ Manufacturers and major ad agencies have their own divisions dedicated to discovering what kids think is cool – one foot wrong and the product or message is immediately dismissed as naff.
One shortcut to credibility is celebrity endorsement, a useful, but expensive tool. Apart from the cost, there are other perceived disadvantages of using well-known faces on packaging. For smaller companies, such merchandising runs the risk of superseding the brand it is intending to promote. There is also the problem of longevity – children react very strongly to what’s on TV, but as soon as the series has ended, they lose all interest. The Teletubbies, Tweenies and Bob the Builder have all been used to sell a vast array of products, but this Christmas, if it hasn’t got Harry Potter on the box, you might as well forget about it.
One option is for a company to design its own characters who will always be associated with their brand. Robyn Stevenson, an account director at Design Bridge, worked on the MÃ¼ller Kids range of dairy products aimed at children from six months to seven years old.
‘The challenge was to maintain credibility without using characters who required ploughing in huge sums and signing complex licensing agreements,’ she explains. ‘The idea ultimately is to create brand loyalty so that kids go on to buy MÃ¼ller as adults. We created the theme of a MÃ¼ller world peopled by MÃ¼ller men in a MÃ¼ller factory.’ Such characters allow the company scope for further merchandising in the future. The details in the factory were paired down to appeal to both gender groups after research showed boys responded to complex gadgetry, but that girls prefer things to be simplified. After examining chiller cabinet shelf shots, the design team recognised that products aimed at children were visually noisy and saturated with colour, so they balanced bright colours, which ‘communicate fruit values’, with lots of white for natural cues, which denote ‘dairy’ and give a sense of quality and freshness.
While for the entrepreneurial there are huge profits to be made from children, for the altruistic, the rewards are also immense, with millions of design-literate minds to be educated and influenced. C21 is designing promotional material for Tidy Britain’s Eco Schools campaign. ‘Children are without a doubt better clients than adults: they are frighteningly honest and happy to say “I don’t understand”; “that doesn’t work” or “it’s too confusing”,’ says C21 creative director Franco Bonadio, who is putting the finishing touches to Eco Schools’ computer game, ‘put waste in its place’ that teaches children about recycling.
Empowering children to become clients is the thinking behind a pilot scheme, Joinedupdesignforschools, which was conceived by The Sorrell Foundation. Seven schools were picked and paired with a designer to show children how they can become actively involved in the design process. One such project was the Quarry Brae primary school in Glasgow, which with the help of Graven Images, solved the problems of its triple-height classroom by designing a ‘tree house’ mezzanine – an idea that came directly from the children.
‘We did have to invest a bit of time at the beginning to get the kids to understand what being a client meant, but once they got the hang of it, they were able to be quite critical,’ says Graven Images creative director Janice Kirkpatrick. ‘And it’s time we fundamentally change the way kids are educated and empower them to make informed choices at a grass roots level.’ The results, which can be seen on a Channel 4 documentary in January, were tracked by think tank Demos and the Department for Education and Skills has shown an interest in the scheme. With such a positive example to follow, perhaps it is time more designers allowed children to be heard as well as just seen. m
Designing for Children by Catherine Fishel is published by Rockport, priced £24.95